‘Into the arms’ of the Taliban: Inspector general says US ties with corrupt Afghan warlords backfired

The United States unintentionally aided the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan because of its alliances with corrupt warlords, the government’s top Afghanistan watchdog said on Wednesday.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee the U.S. helped foster corruption that undermined its strategic goals in Afghanistan. His testimony followed the December publication of the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers, a trove of documents about the war.

The U.S. inadvertently helped the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan “by forming alliances of convenience with warlords who had been pushed out of power by the Taliban,” Sopko said in his prepared opening statement.

“The coalition paid warlords to provide security and, in many cases, to run provincial and district administrations, on the assumption that the United States would eventually hold those warlords to account when they committed acts of corruption or brutality,” he said. “That accounting rarely took place — and the abuses committed by coalition aligned warlords drove many Afghans into the arms of the resurgent Taliban.”

When Democratic Rep. Brad Sherman of California asked if the U.S. earned a D- or an F in building up Afghanistan, Sopko answered: “E. You showed up for class. That’s it.”

In future operations, Sopko said, the U.S. needs to address corruption from the start, ensuring it does not inject too much money too soon into a cash-strapped country such as Afghanistan. “It would also mean limiting U.S. alliances with malign power brokers, holding highly corrupt actors to account, and incorporating anti-corruption objectives into security and stability goals.”

Pentagon officials defended the government’s track record following the release of the Afghanistan Papers.

“So I think between all the folks looking at this conflict over the years, some type of insinuation that there’s been this large-scale conspiracy is just, to me, ridiculous,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said during a press briefing in late December.